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Against all odds

Mon, May 15th, 2000
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The saga of the Amdahl twins, a medical miracleBy Al Mathison

Monday, May 15, 2000

It was a warm June morning in 1922, and 19-year-old Mildred Amdahl was heading out to buy some groceries at the Newburg general store. Her husband, Louis, was nearby in the barn doing the morning chores. Little did Mildred realize when she bent over to give the cars starter a crank that in doing so, she would induce labor. And that within a couple hours she would be the mother of a brand new pair of twin baby girls.

The girls were arriving two months early, and neither Mildred or Louis Amdahl had a clue that they were expecting twins. The other surprise was the size of the babies. The girls didnt weigh much over four pounds between the two of them.

Recently Lorraine Hover and Lois Guerrini, the Amdahl twins of Newburg, who 78 years ago gave their parents the shock of a lifetime, got together at Lorraines apartment in Mabel to reminisce and chuckle over old times. Lois now lives in Greenville, Pennsylvania with her husband, Carl. Lorraine moved into Mabel ten or so years ago after her husband, Clifton, passed away.

Lorraine and Lois dont see each other often these days, but it was clear by the way they automatically finish one anothers sentences, that distance has not diminished the close bond that they share.

Fortunately the Amdahl house had a telephone in 1922, and as her labor pains intensified Mildred hurriedly called the doctor in Mabel. Louis, who had been called to the house, sped off to pick up a neighbor woman, Mrs. Krogh, who would serve as mid-wife.

The doctor who came out to the farm was Hildus Augustinus Nass. A native of Winnesheik County, Iowa, Dr. Nass had been practicing medicine in Mabel since 1898. That first year he established a lasting reputation for himself, when during a deadly outbreak of diphtheria he became the first doctor in the area to use a diphtheria antitoxin. The disease had struck a family of eight children near Hesper, Iowa, when Dr. Nass was called in. Two of the children had already died and the other six were desperately ill but after receiving the antitoxin, the surviving six recovered.

Dr. Nass was tired and weary as he hurried out towards the Amdahl farm in Newburg. He had been called out the night before to the Mr. and Mrs. Oscar Johnson farm near Tawney where he delivered a pair of twin baby boys. The June 22, 1922, issue of the Preston Times applauded Dr. Nasss feat by saying that, " . . . (he) has the unique distinction of officiating at the births of two pairs of twins within 24 hours the fore part of last week."

The tiny Amdahl girls were not expected to live and Louis and Mildred did not even think it was necessary to give them middle names. Indeed, the odds that the girls would survive their first year and then grow to become healthy adults were definitely not in their favor. In a day of limited medical technology, Lois and Lorraine were essentially on their own.

"We sure fooled them, didnt we?" Lorraine said. "It was the warm weather that helped save us,"

"We had no fingernails, no toenails, no anything," Lois chuckled. Im sure we werent very cute.

"Mother said that our heads were the size of doorknobs," Lorraine laughed.

"I was the biggest at a little over two pounds," Lois said. "Lorraine weighed even less."

A recent New York Times article stated that it "has been more than 20 years since doctors have been saving extremely premature infants and about a decade since advances in neonatology vastly improved the survival of babies weighing less than 3 pounds 4 ounces." Keeping a premature infant alive in the hospital with todays sophisticated technology can cost two thousand dollars a day, the article said.

The 1922 farmhouse where the Amdahl twins spent their first precarious months was a sharp contrast to one of todays mechanized neonatal intensive care units. And the techniques used to care for them were basic and rudimentary; done without the benefit of plumbing or electricity.

"We were oiled and wrapped in cotton batting and then each of us was placed in a shoebox," Lois said.

"We had a wood kitchen stove," Lorraine continued. "And Mother used to open the oven door and put those little boxes on the door to keep us warm."

Liquid feedings were done with an eye-dropper and miraculously the girls remained healthy and slowly began to gain weight. One of the first pictures taken of the girls, a year or so later, shows two healthy and robust looking toddlers. There is nothing to indicate the fragile and tenuous condition that they were born in.

Tragedy struck the family when the girls father died when they were only six years old. , Louis was a WW I veteran and had experienced the horrors of war in the trenches of France while fighting the Germans during the fall and winter of 1918. It was an experience that he never fully recovered from, either emotionally or physically, as stomach ulcers plagued him for the rest of his short life.

Lorraine remembered that the day he died, Louis was working in the fields.

"We brought lunch to him that day," she said. "When he got sick, neighbors took him to the La Crosse hospital in a touring car."

"It was so quick," Lois said, "just totally unexpected."

He was only thirty-two years old, Lorraine added.

Mildred was forced to sell the farm and machinery and for a time there was enough money to support her young family. Then the Depression hit.

"We were right in the midst of it," Lorraine said.

"You dont forget that," Lois said. "There was always food on the table but there were many times that it was hard to get by."

As the years passed Lois and Lorraine each married and began families of their own. Lorraine stayed in the Newburg area, just a mile or so from the house where she was born. Lois moved around and lived for awhile in Lanesboro, Chatfield, and Austin. For the past forty-some years she has made northwestern Pennsylvania her home.

Between the two sisters theyre proud to say theyve been blessed with seven children, who in turn have given them 17 grandchildren, and 24 great-grandchildren.

One thing is missing, though.

Among all their offspring, there is not one pair of twins.

"Not yet, anyway," Lois said, smiling.

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